Beer archaeology: Now there’s a profession!

Smithsonian.com recently published an intriguing article titled “The Beer Archaeologist”. After my recent foray into the Akkadian language, I began wondering if the Babylonians were imbibers or if they ever had a Campaign for Real Ale.

The Anchor Steam Brewery in San Francisco has ten unique beers, all produced in one of the most traditional breweries in the world. Each beer is virtually handmade from an all-malt mash in a copper brew-house, a veritable museum of the simple, traditional breweries of old. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Anchor’s new brew-house in August 1989, it had been planning something special. So, when the Institute for Brewing Studies asked them to make a special beer for the Micro Brewery Conference to be held in the city that month, Anchor knew it was the perfect occasion to brew Sumerian Beer. The Sumerian civilisation flourished around the fourth millennium BCE and its people spoke Akkadian. The story of that beer can be found here.

However, according to the Smithsonian story, another expert stalks the taverns of the ancient Near East. He is Dr Patrick McGovern, the world’s foremost expert on ancient fermented beverages. He revives long-forgotten recipes with chemistry, scouring ancient kegs and bottles for residue samples to scrutinize in the lab. He has identified the world’s oldest known barley beer (from Iran’s Zagros Mountains, dating to 3400 BCE), the oldest grape wine (also from the Zagros, circa 5400 BCE) and the earliest known booze of any kind, a Neolithic grog from China’s Yellow River Valley brewed some 9,000 years ago.

“It’s called experimental archaeology,” McGovern explains. For the Dogfish Head brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, he recently came up with a beer called Midas Touch, based on past-their-sell-by refreshments recovered from King Midas’ 700 BCE tomb. Both archaeologist and brewer toured spice stalls at the Khan el-Khalili, Cairo’s oldest and largest market, handpicking ingredients to reproduce the beer. Ancient peoples spiked their drinks with all sorts of unpredictable ingredients – olive oil, bog myrtle, cheese, meadow­sweet, mugwort, carrot, and hallucinogens such as hemp and poppy. The selection for Midas Touch was based on the archaeologist’s findings at the tomb of the Pharaoh Scorpion I, where a curious combination of savory, thyme and coriander showed up in the residues of drinks interred with the monarch in 3150 BCE.

Now, the Egyptians undoubtedly learnt a thing or two from the Sumerians and Babylonians. Did that include how to brew beer? And if so, was there any kind of quality control? Delving into the recently published Akkadian dictionary (see “Et in Akkadia ego” on this blog) proved inconclusive on the subject of beer. But the Babylonian King Hammurabi, who died around 1750 BCE, famously promulgated the first set of laws in recorded history. These laws were inscribed on stone tablets (stelae) standing over eight feet tall and were found in Persia in 1901. The Code of Hammurabi was written before the Mosaic Code and was placed in public view so that all could see it. The Code contained 282 laws, written by scribes on 12 tablets. Unlike earlier laws, it was written in Akkadian, the daily language of Babylon and could, therefore, be read by any literate person in the city. Not being literate, I had recourse to a translation. Law 108 reads: “If a tavern-keeper [feminine] does not accept corn according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water.” Case proven. The Babylonians took their drinking seriously!


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